Heard about the latest CPD model doing the rounds?

20th November 2009 at 00:00
US school reform programme brings new life to classrooms in seven Scottish authorities

Think of a hospital round - where doctors observe and then describe symptoms of particular problems. Now, apply this to your school and see if you might prescribe different remedies for certain issues.

This is what Richard Elmore, a leading academic at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, did in schools in District#2, one of the poorest areas of New York, which now performs much better than comparable areas.

In 2007, Professor Elmore outlined his philosophy for school improvement at a leadership event in Hampden, organised by the Scottish Executive and Edinburgh University's Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration (SCSSA).

In the audience was Stirling Mackie, headteacher of Irvine Royal Academy, who was so inspired by the intellectual rigour and practicalities of what he heard, that he went and bought Elmore's book, School Reform from the Inside Out.

Mr Mackie did not have the chance at that point to put Elmore's theories into practice, as his attention was focused on a school action plan following a "very challenging" HMIE report. "We were given a doing," he admits candidly. The report identified a number of areas which were "weak", including discipline, which had a knock-on effect on the quality of teaching, and "unsatisfactory" self-evaluation.

Follow-up inspections showed good progress in all areas, but it was the subsequent implementation of "learning rounds", based on the Elmore model, to which Mr Mackie attributes the greatest impact.

After Professor Elmore's visit, the National CPD team and SCSSA adapted his concept to a learning rounds model for Scottish schools in seven authorities - North and South Ayrshire, Scottish Borders, Edinburgh, East and West Lothian, and Angus. When they asked for volunteers to pilot learning rounds, Mr Mackie leapt at the chance.

North Ayrshire's pilot involved sending groups of senior staff into four secondaries for a visit. The first group at Irvine Royal included council education staff, heads and deputes, Margaret Orr from the National CPD team and Graham Thomson, director of SCSSA. "We had been up to our elbows in HMIE for two years anyway, plus we had regular classroom observations as part of our quality assurance programme, so staff were used to being observed," says Mr Mackie.

The group was split into two teams, each with three headsdeputes, a quality improvement officer, and a member of either the National CPD team or SCSSA. Their task was to go round classrooms, observing what was going on.

The focus at Irvine Royal was on teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interactions - a broad topic which would open up discussion. Afterwards, the group did a feedback session with teachers who had been observed, as well as some who had not.

Then, Mr Mackie took it a step further. He invited principal teachers to do a learning round - observing departments other than their own. Before he knew it, he had a queue of unpromoted teachers outside his door, asking if they could do their own learning rounds - so a third one was carried out, on the same topic so that the findings would have consistency. Newly-qualified teachers did observations alongside colleagues with more than 20 years' experience.

Now, 42 out of 56 teachers have taken part, making Irvine Royal probably the most committed to the programme of all those in the pilot.

When Mr Mackie compared the lists from each group, he found them similar in many ways, but also "interestingly different". He says: "The people who found it hardest to be non-evaluative were those in the first group, whereas the PTs and unpromoted staff took to it very easily."

The impact has been remarkable. Attendance and attainment (particularly at Standard grade) are up and exclusions are down (last year there were only 38 incidents, compared with hundreds five years ago).

The learning rounds also fostered collegiality in a way which surprised even Mr Mackie.

The original HMIE report had produced an almost Dunkirk spirit - "We got our tin hats on and knew we had to work together to sort this," he says.

But the learning rounds had a more significant impact on staff than other forms of CPD. "It's immediate and it's effective. People tell you that they saw things in other classrooms and immediately thought, `I'm going to try that' - and that's great. Whether it's the use of ICT or questioning, they know that if it doesn't work with them, they can go back to the person they observed and have a discussion about it. They have a professional dialogue which is different from going out on a course."

He warns that it's not completely free CPD. The head still pays for supply cover. "But for the impact it's had on the school, it's cheap."

Mr Mackie was the original driving force behind the pilot, but he has ceded control to staff. The school has set up its own learning rounds committee, co-chaired by two unpromoted teachers, one relatively new to the profession, the other with 20-plus years' experience.

They recently visited Kyle Academy in South Ayrshire to talk to staff about their experiences, while another PT visited Peebles High in the Borders. The team is planning a further two learning rounds in its own school in December and February.

Mr Mackie and his staff still struggle to identify exactly what it is in the structure that moves teaching practice on to such an extent.

It may be that simply having their colleagues in the classroom makes teachers think more reflectively about how they are teaching. Another factor may be that anyone who is being observed is given the chance to observe others. The fact that staff choose the topic of observation also gives them greater ownership.

Last year's learning rounds at Irvine Royal identified the fact that there was a lot of "higher-order" questioning going on in some classes, but in others, there were too many "closed" questions. The process had identified a gap in terms of whole-school performance, so the next in-service day was devoted to a revision of Assessment is for Learning techniques and critical skills.

Mr Mackie believes learning rounds are effective because they allow staff to be objective about what is going on in the classroom, without it being seen as a personal affront.

The unprecedented levels of collegiality will make implementation of A Curriculum for Excellence an easier and more natural process, he says, because staff are used to observing lessons and discussing pedagogy in the staffroom.

Margaret Orr, a member of the National CPD team, who worked closely with Irvine Royal, believes learning rounds are ideally suited to ACfE, because they don't need to focus on poor practice but lend themselves to a development issue, such as literacy across the curriculum or health and well-being.

The north Ayrshire experience

  • The key point of learning rounds is the non-evaluative and non-judgmental take on observation.
  • Before going into any classroom, the group decides what it is going to focus on - it could be pupil-teacher interactions, or use of ICT in teaching, or a particular assessment method.
  • After making their rounds, each team draws up a descriptive list of what its members have observed.
  • They can say, "we saw a high number of pupilteacher interactions", but never use words such as "good", "weak" or "poor".
  • They must reach a consensus about what they have seen.
  • The two teams compare notes - those observing the first half of a lesson, for instance, may see different things from those of the second half.
  • The teams discuss their findings together and feed back to staff.
    • The teachers' perspective

      A year ago, Alan Hume, a technical teacher, was lined up for observation by the first learning rounds team at Irvine Royal Academy.

      He had "mixed feelings" about the prospect. "The idea of people coming in and visiting me in the classroom was something I didn't want to get into - I was volunteered for it."

      It was only when he was given the chance to observe other people that he saw the benefits. "I've been teaching for 26 years and had never had the opportunity to go in to see a different lesson being taught - I know there are lots of good teachers in the school, but I had never had access to what they were doing.

      "This gave me an opportunity to go into their classes and see what they were doing, and after that to reflect on the bad habits I had fallen into and on new things I could bring into my teaching," says the co-chair of the learning rounds committee.

      Julie McCaig, its other co-chair, who teaches biology, concurs. She also got little out of being observed - it was taking part in an observation and the post-observation professional discussion that gave her a platform to which she had never had access.

      Seeing pupils in a different class has also benefited the teachers in the 12-strong core group, which has helped build teacher-pupil relationships.

      Some have seen children who struggle in their subject doing really well in another - and this has made them not only reflect on what's happening in that other classroom, but see another side to the child. It has also given them an insight into the pupils' school day - how tiring it can be for some of them.

      Contrary to their expectations, teachers found that pupils were keen to be observed in other classes - they saw it as the teachers showing a real interest in them.

      She adds: "By being in and out of other classrooms, we can see how our work fits in with other subjects. We are expecting the kids to make a lot of the links in cross-curricular work but I think this will help us with A Curriculum for Excellence."

      Although the school already had literacy and numeracy committees, the learning rounds experience will make them work better, says Elizabeth Elliott, acting PT of social subjects.

      "It helps you see the bigger picture," adds Mr Hume. "Everyone now wants to drive the school forward and talk about our school."

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